I HELD A CRACK BABY ONCE, but not while I was an undercover narcotics agent in East Texas in the seventies. It was in 1983, after I had gotten out of prison and fled to New York City, while I was maintaining asylum in the ivory towers of graduate school. My fourth-floor walk-up was in a mostly Dominican neighborhood near Columbia University, where there was enough crack to go around—and then some.

Late one afternoon, the crack baby’s sister brought him down the hall and knocked on my door. “My mother’s gone out, and I’m scared,” she said. She was only nine or ten, with perfectly braided hair and little plastic barrettes in the shape of bows. I’d seen her double-dutch a time or two. She had wide eyes and a great smile. She stepped inside carefully, as though she was awed to be in a white woman’s apartment. After we sat on the couch, she asked, “Do you want to take him?”

I hadn’t held many babies back then. He was an infant, new to the world, his eyes still unfocused. I was surprised at how little he weighed. He was squirmy and uncomfortable, and his sister knew it: She had sensed that he wasn’t happy, and it scared her. She thought she was doing something wrong or at least not doing something right. It was in the movement of his head that I noticed something akin to a shudder. It wasn’t obvious, but it was there. He needed something. He needed crack cocaine.

His mother was given to disappearing for days or weeks at a time, and one time after she’d been gone awhile, I came home from class to see her standing on the stoop, leaning against the wall, sucking on a crack pipe. She was showing, and the shock of it hit me in the gut, along with a feeling that I should do something. I told myself that it was none of my business. What was I going to do: walk up to a bunch of crackheads, single her out, and say, “Uh, excuse me, you shouldn’t be doing that while you’re pregnant”?

I wished two things. I wished that I hadn’t even seen her, but it was a day so pleasant even the junkies wanted to come outside. And then I wished that there was no law against crack. I wished that instead of scoring it on the street, she could have gone to a facility where addicts get their daily dose, where a social worker could have sat with her and said, “You may be hurting your unborn baby, and I know you don’t really want to do that. Let me send you somewhere where they can help you overcome your addiction.” Surely that wouldn’t cost any more than putting her in prison, leaving her daughter without a mother and the taxpayers with another $35,000 or so in the debit column.

I held the baby for only a short time before his mother knocked on the door. She had a bag of groceries and didn’t appear high. She gave her daughter a stern look and apologized to me.

A few weeks later, the mother came over and borrowed $5—for formula, she said. I gave it to her, hoping she was telling the truth. A few weeks after that she handed me a worn $5 bill and thanked me. The bill was so used it felt as limp as cloth. In that neighborhood even the money was worn out. I tucked it in my pocket, my conscience a bit less uneasy. Maybe she really had bought formula. But even if she hadn’t, I could understand it. I knew what it was like. I knew what addiction was like.

IN THE SEVENTIES, WHEN THE WAR ON drugs had just been declared, I enlisted. After two years as a patrol officer and a detective in Plano, I was asked to be part of a long-term street-level narcotics investigation in East Texas. For a young cop, the chance was too good to pass up, so I took on a new identity and spent months undercover, buying dope of all kinds. That was my job.

During that time, I was introduced to, as they say, Mr. Jones—monster addiction, all-powerful need. I’ve heard it said that back in the fifties, the few members of the Department of Public Safety’s Narcotics Section would gather once a year, divide up their budget, and then fan out across the state to their territories, where they had free reign. Whatever they did—legal or otherwise—they did in the name of the law. Two decades later, so did I.

Maybe I would have encountered cocaine eventually. Most everyone in my generation seemed to have tried it. But I’d never even seen it until I became an undercover cop, when I was taught how to use it so that I could do the job of buying drugs on the street—even though it was illegal. Only three kinds of people buy at that level: users, addicts, and undercover cops. So if you’re selling, one way to assure yourself that you’re not selling to the heat is to watch the buyer snort it, shoot it, smoke it—whatever.

It took me only about six weeks to get hooked. I remember a Sunday in the spring of 1979, just a few months after I went undercover. I woke up and reached into the dresser drawer next to my bed to retrieve the mirror. I sniffed a couple of lines of cocaine, that party drug, the one that medical authorities said wasn’t physically addictive. I pulled on some jeans and a shirt and slipped through the living room, where my partner was snoring on the couch. His left arm protruded from beneath a blanket. Heavy-duty tracks bulged the veins on his forearm. I didn’t have a clue what he was on: Dilaudid, heroin, speedballs. It could have been anything. He’d been a narc since the sixties.

I empathized. If I looked at myself in the mirror good and hard, past or into the identity I’d assumed, I saw an addict staring back at me. I was doing so many different drugs that I couldn’t quite put a finger on what exactly I was abusing besides myself and the laws of the State of Texas. But wait: I wasn’t really addicted, right? I would kick the habit as soon as we busted out, because I was an officer of the law, doing what must be done to keep the streets safe for children. I’d already told my bosses that I was strung out, that my partner was strung out. But the word was “Go make more cases.”

I left my partner comatose on the couch and walked over to the 7-Eleven for coffee and a paper. The whole investigation was out of control, and my feeble attempts to stop it had been stonewalled by my superiors. I wanted a change. I needed to do something different, however inconsequential. I decided to take a day off, something I hadn’t done since joining the war effort. But a day off meant not buying drugs, and my stash was running low. Maybe I shouldn’t take a day off. Maybe the taxpayers deserved better.

I hadn’t had a needle in my arm for at least a couple of weeks. I was trying to break away, though I knew on some level there would be hell to pay for going straight. A day or so earlier, a speed dealer had come by and asked to use my shower. After he emerged, he broke out his works. Polite to a fault, he offered me a shot of Preludin, primo speed, pharmaceutical. I declined. I was determined.

Getting Preludin from its neon-pink tablet form to an injectable liquid is a time-consuming and precise operation. I watched him prepare it. I watched him cook it. My mouth watered. My genitals hummed. When he put the needle in his arm and pulled back the plunger to register blood, and then gently, lovingly pushed the plunger down, and his head rocked back and his eyes closed and his lips smacked at the taste, I almost fell out of my chair. Sitting there just watching, I tasted it too, right there in the back of my throat, rushing up like heartburn, only this felt good, good, good, and the smell filled my head like it did when I shot it myself. The sensation was so desirable that my brain was recreating it, attempting to do on its own what Preludin was doing for my friend the speed dealer. I tasted it, yes, but the rush I got was mild compared with what I knew he was experiencing, and in that moment I could have easily held out my arm to him.

A FEW WEEKS LATER WE ROUNDED UP roughly a hundred defendants in what was billed as East Texas’ largest-ever drug bust. Death threats poured in, and one night someone attempted to take out my partner and me with a double-barreled shotgun. That got my attention.

I tried to run. Desperate to get as far away as I could, I decided to go cold turkey and joined the U.S. Air Force, hoping to be sent to another country. But first I had to complete basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where I spent six anxious weeks anticipating my escape to the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey. From there I would fly to some faraway air base and eavesdrop on Russians over the airwaves.

I got clean in basic, really clean, for the first time in a long time, and I’ve been clean ever since. When I thought back to all the drugs I had bought for the police department so that the people selling them could be locked away in cages, I shook my head in disbelief. No, that couldn’t have been me, crawling around on the floor, running my fingers along the carpet—prospecting, as cokeheads call it—looking for fallen rocks of cocaine, wanting one more shot. But it was me. And if I was a drug addict, I must be suffering from some kind of character defect. I must be a bad person.

I didn’t make it to Monterey. The day after I graduated from basic training, the FBI showed up, asking questions about cops taking drugs, about cops lying on the witness stand. I landed in the U.S. attorney’s office in Tyler, where I denied that I had ever had a cocaine habit until it became apparent that plea negotiations could not go forward until I admitted it. But even as I sat there saying yes, okay, so I had a drug problem, I was denying it silently to myself.

I ended up pleading guilty to perjury. I had taken the witness stand in a number of cases and falsely denied using drugs each time, and I had helped fabricate a cocaine case against a suspected child pornographer. I’m still glad I pleaded guilty, though I’ve since realized I probably could have beaten the charges. The feds indicted the chief of police, my boss during the investigation, and I testified against him at his trial. I’m still glad I did that too, though the jury found him not guilty.

After so much fuss, somebody had to do some time. When I arrived at the federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky, I made sure I had a fresh bottle of Valium (to help me survive the experience of being incarcerated), a note from my family doctor, and a prescription refill in hand. The trustee who searched my stuff promptly confiscated all three, and I never saw them again. I got the shakes, hallucinated, and cried uncontrollably. It was withdrawal from a legal drug, legally obtained, that sent me to the infirmary, and from there to Alpha, the women’s psych unit.

When I returned to the main compound, I attended a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and listened to one person after another fondly recall their drug experiences. I wasn’t sure, but it didn’t seem to me that anyone was getting help. It was more like a contest in which each addict tried to tell the best story about having gotten higher than anyone else. I opted out and bought a graduation certificate from a prisoner who had access to them. I emerged from prison a changed person. Had my sentence been longer or had I been in maximum security, I most likely would have been changed for the worse. Fortunately, I managed to get out before any lasting damage was done. And in at least one way, the experience was good. Inside I met many kind, decent people who were locked up for using drugs, and as I thought about a lot of the people I’d helped make cases on—not bad people, not monsters, just folks—I became convinced of the folly of the war I’d fought. I realized that if we continue to run drug addicts through the system at the current rate, and we don’t look for another way to deal with addiction, a significant percentage of our majority-rule nation will soon be felons.

THE DRUG WAR VERY NEARLY KILLED ME, several times and in several ways: as a narc, as an addict, as a prisoner. Today I am on the sidelines, but the war is still real to me: I am a mother of two small boys who are growing up in a world where drugs are a reality. Every afternoon, as they run around the back yard, laughing and shouting, I pray that they will never suffer the ravages of addiction to cocaine, alcohol, tobacco, or any other substance. And I hope they will not have to endure the degradation and pain of a prison term. I tell them the truth as I know it: that drugs can make you feel good at first, but that they are dangerous, sometimes deadly, so it’s best not to even fool around with them. To lie to my boys by exaggerating the consequences of drug use, which is what the drug-education programs I attended as a teenager did, is to invite disaster. If they discover my lies, they will assume I am untrustworthy in general.

I look back on my time as a narcotics agent from a great, and grateful, distance. But I have no distance from my time as a coke addict. It is with me still: the intimate knowledge of need. Though I don’t have a desire for the drug itself, I understand the desire. Here in late twentieth-century America, we are each addicted to something. We belong to a culture of addiction and recovery: food, sex, exercise, work, TV, and yes, drugs. Drugs are not evil or bad or malicious. They are mere substances: powders, pills, liquids. They have no intent; they simply are what they are. Drug addicts are not evil or bad or malicious. They are often desperate—not to rob you or burglarize your home, but to kick the addiction. I know this because I’ve run with addicts, and I’ve been one myself. Trust me: Nobody sets out to become a drug addict. It is a hellish existence. Yeah, the rush is good. Yeah, the nod is astonishing. Yeah, the thrill is fine. But it always ends. And you’re always looking for more.

When I was in prison, aside from a few stockbrokers, real estate developers, lawyers, and a politician or two, almost everyone I met was in for drugs. And there were drugs in prison too. I couldn’t get a decent pizza inside, but I could get acid, coke, heroin, pot—whatever you want, baby, we got it. In a matter of a few months, prison guards can make the equivalent of their annual salary, tax-free, by bringing in dope for the convicts. Not everyone can shake his head no to that. And if we can’t keep drugs out of our prisons, how can we ever honestly expect to keep them out of the country? We can’t. The sooner we realize that—and start dealing with the reality of addiction, which means treatment instead of incarceration—the better off we’ll be.

A few weeks ago, after taping an interview with Bill Moyers for his recent five-part PBS series Moyers on Addiction: Closer to Home, I was at a luncheon for the participants. There we sat at a well-appointed table at an elegant restaurant, looking for all the world like “normal” people. Of course, more than half of us were admitted drug addicts. And you can’t tell me that some of the producers and editors at the table had never fired up a joint or snorted a line of coke. Not everyone gets addicted, and a great many addicts get over it. Many of them struggle for years to do so—some alone, as I did, and some with help, although the wait for spots in the few existing treatment facilities grows longer each day. So what’s best for society? Would society benefit if those of us lunching there were in a chow hall in a prison somewhere, being punished and punished and punished again on top of the punishment of addiction itself, rather than living and working and dealing with our addictions as best we can?

NOT TOO LONG AFTER I HELD THE crack baby—a true casualty of the drug war—a friend sent me a clipping from the Dallas Morning News describing a bust that had taken place in East Texas. Fresh meat for the criminal justice machine. The note that came with the clipping read “The more things change, the more things remain the same.”

Kim Wozencraft’s latest novel, The Catch, will be published by Doubleday in October.